On the 22nd June 2015 the Second Church Estates Commissioner, Rt Hon Caroline Spelman MP, spoke during the second reading debate of the Government’s Education and Adoption Bill. Emphasising the role of the Church of England in education, and welcoming the move towards more multi-academy trusts, Mrs Spelman sought assurances that the proposed new Government powers of intervention would not limit the Church’s ability to control its existing schools and promote new ones. Her speech is in full, below:
Mrs Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): I rise to speak in my capacity as Second Church Estates Commissioner, but first I would like to build on the comment I made in response to remarks made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt). My local authority chose to make all the schools in my constituency academies, and the parents of 7,000 pupils have chosen to have their children educated in the borough of Solihull, so localism and parent choice exist. The only bone of contention for me is that, had the per capita funding those children would have enjoyed were they educated in Birmingham and Coventry, where they reside, followed them, £1,300 more per pupil would have been available. My local authority would very much like that anomaly to be addressed. In health, the money follows the patient; by the same token, in education, it would be good to see the money follow the pupil. I totally support the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) to ensure that the schools funding formula is adjusted to achieve fairer funding.
The Church of England family of schools is a key part of the education system and dioceses are committed to maintaining high standards and developing capacity across its 4,700 schools in a strategic way. Some 65% of the schools have fewer than 210 pupils, and the Church of England currently runs more than half the small primary schools in England. Although 80% of its schools are in the good or outstanding categories, the Church faces the same challenge of raising standards in the remaining 20%. Schools that are eligible for intervention are defined as those in categories 3 and 4 under Ofsted, so I believe that the idea of coasting is underpinned by the evidence to which the Secretary of State referred.
The Church is not opposed to academisation; it sees that an academy with a strong sponsor can often be the way in which a school improves. The general shift toward multi-academy trusts, rather than single autonomous schools, is largely welcomed by the Church of England, particularly in the light of the number of small rural schools. In its report, “Working Together: The Future of Rural Church of England Schools”, published in October last year, the chief education officer of the Church of England said that he is convinced of the need for schools
“to form effective structural partnerships and collaborations” if some of them “are to survive into the future… Collaborations are not a means to avoid closure, but are for mutual benefit”.
It is important that strength and capacity are maintained through a strategic approach, rather than decisions being taken on a school-by-school basis. It is the very coherence of the Church family of schools that enables the Church of England to make a significant contribution to education in this country. I therefore seek assurances from the Secretary of State that the Bill and the associated regulations and guidance explicitly recognise the duties of the dioceses and school trustees, who have to preserve the Church of England character of their school.
Under the Bill, regional school commissioners will have authority to require a school to become an academy; however, they may have only a limited understanding of the position of the diocese in relation to Church schools. The Bill gives the Secretary of State the power to decide who serves on the interim executive body of a failing school. Can she reassure the Church that that body will have regard to the ethos of faith schools, as in clause 5?
The Bill grants new powers to the Secretary of State to require failing schools to enter into a variety of collaborations or a federation with other schools. The Church already has a number of federations, such as the Trinity federation and the Pilgrim federation in the Norwich diocese, which are a mix of Church and voluntary-aided schools. They demonstrate how the individuality of each school has been maintained, which should allay the fears of the National Secular Society that the Church might in some way dominate the non-Church schools. The Church will continue to develop diocesan and Church school-led multi-academy trusts in a way that offers the opportunity to build strong partnerships within the Church school family and that welcomes community schools, as well.
It is important to ensure that the new Government powers of intervention do not limit the Church’s ability to control its existing schools and promote new ones. The Church should still be able to take its own steps to improve the quality of its own provision. I hope that the Government will continue to work with the Church of England and the Catholic Church to ensure that the Bill and any related regulations and guidance meet these concerns.